J.C. Leyendecker, during the first half of the 20th Century, created an image of the American male to match the girls of Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg and Harrison Fisher. The Arrow Collar Man, that thoroughbred sophisticate with a life-style of an F. Scott Fitzgerald character, was well known and well loved, receiving more mail than the screen idols of the day. Leyendecker’s enthusiasm for his work and painstaking devotion to perfection are evidenced in the vast amount of advertising, magazine and book illustrations he created, each researched, resketched and reworked to his total satisfaction. His life is just one of the many success stories of immigrants to America whose dedication, drive and ability took them to the top of their professions.
Born Joseph Christian, March 23, 1874 in Montabour, a small town in southwestern Germany, he was the eldest of Peter and Elizabeth Leyendecker’s three children. The Dutch family immigrated to America in 1882, settling in Chicago where Peter went to work in the family brewery. J.C.’S art talent surfaced early and after graduating from high school he apprenticed to J. Manz and Company, a Chicago engraving house. For the next seven years he attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago under John H. Vanderpoehl. Frank, J.C.’s brother and close friend for many years, joined him for several evening classes. By 1896, enough money had been raised from J.C.’s salary and his first prize in the Century magazine poster contest, for further studies in Paris at the Academie Julian.
J.C., considerably younger than the rest of the students, enjoyed great success in Paris, monopolizing the monthly “best artwork” award from the Academie’s Adolfe Boureguereau and exhibiting a one man show at the Salon Champs du Mars. At home, his monthly covers, mailed from Paris, for Chicago’s Inland Printer, began to bring him national attention.
An established craftsman and technician with a warm feeling for human nuance, J.C. had developed a bold strike and use of color. He maintained a vast collection of his sketches which he used to add details to his work and often painted in color knowing that the piece would be reproduced in black and white.
After three years in Chicago, where J.C.’s Ivory Soap ads and his first Post cover were completed, the brothers opened a studio near New York’s Washing Square. In 1905, J.C. received his most lucrative assignment. Cluett, Peabody and Company, manufacturers of Arrow detachable collars, used J.C.’s work for the next 25 years, giving him a free hand to create the image of the well mannered gentleman for their campaigns. For models he used some of the aspiring actors of the day and in particular, Charles Beach. The very handsome, square-featured Beach became J.C.’s lifelong friend, house manager and business aide.
The financial success of the Arrow ads, as well as ads for other clothing manufacturers, and his many magazine covers gave J.C. the freedom to live in luxury. The Washington Square home gave way to the Mt. Tom Road estate in New Rochelle in 1914. Frank, sister Augusta and Charles Beach moved into the new home, which included an elaborate garden and fountain. J.C. maintained a studio near Bryant Park until 1920.
By 1923, a feud between the brothers, which had been growing for years, caused Frank and Augusta to leave Mt. Tom Road. Frank, who had been disenchanted for many years because he was “the second Leyendecker” and because his penchant for the fine arts was constantly squelched by his brother died soon afterwards.
J.C.’s magazine work flourished between the Wars even though the depression took its toll on his advertising clients. He became synonymous with the holiday covers for the Saturday Evening Post (the New Year’s baby and the Thanksgiving turkey) and also illustrated for Life and American Weekly. His work began to appear in color and, as with Parrish and Pyle earlier, gave full flower to his illustrations.
Financially barely able to hold on to the Mt. Tom Road home after World War II, the 77 year old artist was still actively seeking work when he died of a heart attack on July 25, 1951. At his side was Charles Beach, to whom he left half the estate.
Today, many years after the peak of his fame, one still sees artists emulating J.C. Leyendecker’s style. But capturing his strength of design, his technical facility for light and shadow, shape and texture is rare indeed. He blended his talent and training with opportunity to create the artwork which affected Americans for decades.